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Wednesday, 5 June, 2002, 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK

Gymnasts burst out of the shadows

Commonwealth Games gymnastics has always lagged behind the Olympics and the World Championships in terms of talent.

The simple reason lies in geography and the fact that the world's leading gymnasts originate from the United States, China, Romania, Russia and the former Soviet Union states rather than any country in the Commonwealth

For example, one of the favourites for gold in Manchester, Philippe Rizzo, finished 29th at the Sydney OIympics in the all-around - the highest ever Olympic finish by an Australian.

Likewise, Northern Ireland's Holly Murdock lies 14th in the world rankings and is among the favourites for gold in the women's all-around.

The Games have produced few major stars capable of continually challenging on the world stage - England's Annika Reeder and Neil Thomas, and Canada's Curtis Hibbert labelled as the past heroes of the Games.

"If anyone had seen the level of competition and how tense it was they would disagree"
Vera Atkinson hits out

That list fails to conjure up any comparisons to Olympic gold medallists Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci among others.

But that is not to downplay the sport, which remains one of the blue riband events of the Games, particularly the women's.

Despite some of the world's best missing, the calibre of the athletes remains high with an interest in the sport to match it.

And, with 14 gold medals on offer, it could have quite an effect on the final medals table.

Vera Atkinson, a spokesman for the British Gymnastics Federation, was among those to hit out at accusations that the Games lacks high-calibre performers and performances.

She said: "If anyone had seen the level of competition and how tense it was between the English, Canadians and Australians over the years they would disagree.

"There have been some great athletes out there in the past and there will be in the future."

In fact, Commonwealth Games gymnastics, as with many sports in the Games, gives an opportunity for some sporting nations lower down the hierarchy to have a chance to shine.

Namibia are among those who will send out a team to compete in Manchester while the likes of Australia, England and Canada are all expected to compete evenly for the majority of the medals in all the events.

A recurring theme from Commonwealth gymnasts is a lack of funding that offer sports boasts.

The likes of Murdock, Rizzo, South Africa's Simon Hutcheon and England's Kanukai Jackson to name a few have all struggled to make ends meet.

Meanwhile the Romanians and the Russian athletes have had the best facilites, coaching and financial backing, many Commonwealth nations lagging behind.

And as a result, through no fault of their own, gymnastics has sometimes tended to suffer.

That takes nothing away from the athletes who, alongside regular day jobs in many cases, train every evening and weekend to achieve their goal.

And the performances and results should match that dedication when the Games get under way in July.

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